Places of worship in Scotland are to reopen for communal gatherings on 26 March, in time for Easter and other religious festivals including Passover and Ramadan, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
In a move which will relax restrictions on social gatherings north of the border faster than in England, Ms Sturgeon also brought forward to Friday the date on which up to four people from two households will be allowed to meet in outdoor spaces, including private gardens.
And she said that the rule will be loosened further for 12-17 year-olds to allow up to four teenagers from four different households to get together with friends.
In what she acknowledged were “minor” changes to the rules, Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh that from 12 March, outdoor non-contact sports involving up to 15 people will also once again be permitted.
And she announced that a national silence will be held on 23 March - the anniversary of the first lockdown beginning - in memory of all those who have lost their lives.
Ms Sturgeon voiced her “anger and despair” at the behaviour of Rangers football fans who committed mass breaches of lockdown restrictions while celebrating their team’s championship victory on Sunday.
“The behaviour witnessed at the weekend was disgraceful, and it was selfish,” she said.
The first minister was speaking with chief constable Iain Livingstone on Tuesday afternoon and with football authorities later in the week to consider further action, and indicated that the future of elite football matches could be in jeopardy.
She said that football clubs “need to show much more leadership on occasions like this” and that Rangers “could have done more to help avoid the situation arising at the weekend”.
And she added: “The fact is that elite sport is being allowed to continue just now so that fans - deprived like all of us of so much else in life right now - can continue to watch and support their teams.
“It would be deeply unfair if a minority spoil that for the majority and I very much hope that will not be the case. But given the fragility of the situation we face right now, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to what happened at the weekend, and we won’t.”
The Scottish government has so far been more cautious than Boris Johnson’s administration in London in setting out a timetable for the lifting of lockdown, setting out dates only as far ahead as the last week in April, when it is hoped to return to a system of regional tiers in Scotland. Mr Johnson has named 21 June as the day he hopes most restrictions will be gone.
But Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she will next week set out a firmer timetable for the reopening of venues, including non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants and tourism destinations.
The announcements came as the first minister confirmed that that 466 positive coronavirus tests and 19 deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in Scotland in the latest 24-hour period.
She announced a possible, but unconfirmed, new case of the Brazilian P1 variant in Scotland, involving an individual who travelled from Rio de Janeiro via Paris on 19 February.
But she stressed that the infected person had followed all self-isolation rules and is believed to present no risk to the wider community.
Setting out changes to the rules affecting places of worship, Ms Sturgeon said that from 26 March, attendance by up to 50 people will be permitted, so long as premises are large enough to allow social distancing.
“I know that the restrictions on communal worship have been really difficult for many people, despite the quite exceptional efforts made by faith groups to reach out to their communities,” she told MSPs.
“This change is relatively minor, it is proportionate, and we believe that it can be achieved relatively safely. But it will hopefully enable more people to draw strength, comfort and inspiration from acts of collective worship.”
Ms Sturgeon said that almost 40 per cent of Scottish adults have now received a first dose of Covid vaccine, with invitations now going out to the 50-59 age group.
And she said that, following a recent dip in supply of vaccines, she expected “a very significant acceleration” in the programme of jabs from the middle of March as stocks pick up again.
Ms Sturgeon said: “If the data allows us to relax more restrictions more quickly than we have previously indicated, we will not hesitate to do that. I am very well aware of just how difficult continued restrictions are, and I know that they get harder, rather than easier, to bear as time goes on.
“I also know … that the progress on vaccination makes us even more impatient to reach the end of this ordeal as quickly as possible.
“But I am certain, absolutely certain, that easing restrictions too quickly, would be a mistake that we would regret.”
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